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Rise of the Shojo Imprints

Looking at shojo and josei manga imprints



(NOTE: For this post and my own sanity, I will spell "shoujo" and "shounen" without the "u" as a lot of publishers do. Also, note that by "U.S. publishers" or the broader "English publishers," I am referring to the U.S.-based and broader English market publishers. I know some publishers like Drawn & Quarterly are based in Canada and St. Elsewhere. Don't @ me. Finally, I am based in the U.S. so bias slants that way.)



Title Card: Rise of the Shojo Imprints; features comics: Sirius, Godchild/Cain Saga series, My Love Story with Yamada-kun at Lv999, On/Off, I Can't Refuse S, Banana Fish, Natsume's Book of Friends
Featured: Sirius: Twin Stars, Godchild/Cain Saga series, My Love Story with Yamada-kun at Lv999, On or Off, I Can't Refuse S, Banana Fish, and Natsume's Book of Friends

Within the past several years, the U.S. and the rest of the English-language market have seen a rise in manga for girls. This increase feels like the mid to late 00s all over again with publishers once again courting an underserved demographic with content. Mostly romantic content. While shojo and its counterpart josei are marketing demographics and determined by magazines (in which the series was first published) and publishers in Japan, that doesn't seem to be the case in the U.S. and St. Elsewhere. (In Japan, "shojo" simply refers to young and teenage girls, and "josei" refers to adult women.) Like it (or not), "shojo" is practically synonymous with "romance" in the U.S. (and related markets). Fingers could be pointed at both publishers and consumers alike for why that may be, but I'll go on a limb and say that perhaps romance, in general, or ones catering to girls and women, is where publishers see a huge difference in tastes and preferences.


I can't find stats on the reader's demographics and habits when it comes to romance manga in the U.S. and related markets so I'll use the next best substitute: romance fiction. Romance fiction has exploded over the past few years. According to Penguin Randon House, romance became one of the fastest-growing genres in 2021. It was up 50% over 2020. On the other hand, comics and graphic novels were up 113% in 2021 with over 20 million copies of manga sold.


According to NDP Book Group, romance is the leading category in U.S. print book sales in 2022, and the sales show no sign of slowing down. Additionally, The Observer noted that the majority of book buyers and romance readers are women, and romance readers "are avid readers" who "read across genres; 50 percent of them will try a new author—a much higher percentage than readers of other genres." Furthermore, there is a notable rise in the popularity of LGTBQ+ fiction, and this rise is also matched in today's manga market. (To be clear, LGBTQ+ fiction's popularity is not carried solely by women, but they do contribute significantly to this rise.)


Overall, the gender imbalance when it comes to romance fiction isn't so great, but the habits are nice to have when you're doing a capitalism. I know that regular readers' habits differ from manga readers' habits, but the comparison serves as a somewhat better theory and answer in addition to the boring but tried and true, good old-fashioned misogyny. Because, again, for the 1000th time, girls read everything, and by everything, I mean manga aimed at boys (shonen) and men (seinen) just short of fanservice, ecchi, and hentai manga written for them. Some exceptions apply. (Apparently, My Dress-Up Darling gets a pass.)



Reddit post about My Dress-Up Darling with 402 upvotes and 81 comments
The bar is in the ocean

The rise in female readership in manga within North America was chronicled in articles like "How to Sell Shojo" (ICv2, 2001) and "Manga for Girls" (NYT, 2005), and it primarily came via way of cross-over shonen series like Ranma 1/2 and Oh My Goddess! before female readers were served their own content. (And then presumably turned around and still read/watched Ranma 1/2 because it fucking slaps.) In 2005, the female readership of manga was 60%. Today, I'm not sure what the gender breakdown of manga is in general. However, when it comes to reading online digitally and via e-books, evidence points to female readers ruling the roost if these articles and reports indicate anything, anyway.



On another hand, it probably wouldn't surprise you to know that manga buyers skew young. Really young. According to NPD, 76% of manga buyers were between the ages of 13 to 29. Sadly, being in my 30s, I'd be of little interest to manga companies now...



Howl's Moving Castle - Grandma Sophie says, "It's not easy being old." GIF


Due to multiple factors such as the manga boom under COVID, the rise in TikTok manga recommendations, and anime becoming mainstream, we have more manga to read and discuss than ever, and more importantly, we have more joseimuke imprints to pick through. ("Joseimuke manga" is the technical term for manga aimed at a general female audience, but the made-up portmanteau "shoujosei" is a fun word and very apt to anything we discuss outside of how Japan does things.) So, let's talk about these joseimuke (or if you prefer, shoujosei) imprints. By my count, there are four major joseimuke manga imprints: Viz's Shojo Beat, Tokyopop's LoveLove, Penguin Random House x Del Rey UK's Inklore, and Seven Seas' Steamship.



Viz Shojo Beat logo and blurb; "Shojo Beat: Stories from the heart. Character-driven romance, fantasy and comedy for teens and adults from the leader in shojo manga."

Viz Shojo Beat

For those unfamiliar, the Shojo Beat imprint is a part of VIZ Media, LLC, an American manga publisher, anime distributor, and entertainment company. The brand has a page on VIZ's site as well as active Tumblr and Twitter accounts to interact with fans. (You can learn more about the history of Shojo Beat in my article here.)


Viz is the undisputed market leader of manga, and once upon a time Viz's Shojo Beat imprint was the only shojo manga imprint in the U.S., but it's 2023 now, and the imprint has some competition. (Friendly competition. Because nobody can compete directly with Viz's stranglehold on the market, but that's a topic for another day.)


Shojo Beat tumblr post
New competition entered the chat

If I had to describe Shojo Beat in a few words, it would be "mainstream," "popular," "well known," and "loved." Many a fan's first experiences with shojo (and josei) can be traced to Shojo Beat, and many a shojo fan still enjoys Shojo Beat's offerings today. Shojo Beat has popular titles turned anime such as Skip Beat, Vampire Knight, Ouran High School Host Club, Fushigi Yugi: Mysterious Play, Kimi ni Todoke: From Me to You, Yona of the Dawn, and Kamisama Kiss. Additionally, Shojo Beat has titles that people just discover via word-of-mouth or other means as these series don't have anime like Hot Gimmick, Black Bird, and Hana-Kimi. When it comes to strong brand recognition and brands catering to a female audience, Viz's Shojo Beat is the undisputed Queen. There are over 140 series and counting.


If you're interested in a wide range of manga similar to what Shojo Beat offers, maybe the new imprint Inklore will satisfy your needs. Otherwise, you'll have to dig through Kodansha, Yen Press, and Seven Seas' catalogs. However, if you're looking for romance and only romance, Tokyopop has you covered.



Tokyopop LoveLove imprint brand logo

Tokyopop LoveLove

If you were collecting and reading manga in the mid-00s and earlier, then Tokyopop may have been a familiar name to you. Established in 1997, Tokyopop boasted that it "established the market for manga in North America," and in many ways, it did. Tokyopop is credited with introducing manga that's read right-to-left and included the original Japanese printed sound effects (aka "100% authentic manga"). Tokyopop also introduced us to original English-language manga (OEL), and it was the first to publish some of the best well-known and loved shojo and josei manga like Paradise Kiss, Sailor Moon, Fruits Basket, Cardcaptor Sakura, and a lot of other Clamp works. Tokyopop competed head-to-head with Viz back in the day, but since the manga crash and the company's restructuring, Tokyopop has been working to rebuild a foothold in the North American market again, and it may have finally found it thanks to the LoveLove imprint.


In 2020, Tokyopop's dedicated romance imprint first launched under the name Love x Love. The company recently rebranded and relaunched Love x Love as LoveLove in 2023. Different name, same mission: to be an all-encompassing and inclusive romance brand. Tokyopop puts GL/yuri, BL/yaoi, "shojo/josei" (which the company defines as m/f romance), and LGBTQ+ romance manga and non-manga (such as manwha, manhua, etc) in a big bowl and served it up. The titles are suitable for ages 13+. That's right. Tokyopop mixed sexy and mature titles with non-spicy titles so don your best Boonie hat and get to shoveling.


We Can't Do Just Plain Love v. 1 Japanese manga cover
We Can't Do Just Plain Love is licensed in print under the Tokyopop LoveLove imprint

Now, before you quote retweet me to death on Twitter (@ThatMangaHunter), yes, technically LoveLove isn't aimed at just girls and women per Tokyopop's own admission in an ICv2 article from February 2020. Tokyopop deliberately engineered Love x Love and now LoveLove to be a gender-neutral brand from the color scheme to what the label entails.


If you're a male reader who enjoys m/f romance, there's het manga for you too. You'll find it under "shojo/josei." Examples include If My Favorite Pop Idol Made it to the Budokan, I Would Die (serialized in Comic Ryu) and Her Royal Highness Seems to Be Angry (serialized in Comic Gardo). Tokyopop still went with "shojo/josei" to describe straight m/f romance instead of something else. Something less gendered. Anything else. I guess "het romance" wouldn't go over well, and "m/f romance" isn't as sexy... Wait...


Do we need a new word for all-encompassing shojo/josei and shonen/seinen romance? 🤔 I guess we don't need one since everyone agrees shojo/josei means "m/f romance." 🍅 🍅 🍅


*Covers head.* Put your damn tomatoes away! (More on this topic at 6.)


Anyway, the relaunch lineup includes The Black Cat & The Vampire, Undead: Finding Love in the Zombie Apocalypse, Sating the Wolf, and Lullaby Of The Dawn. Check out those and more here.


To Tokyopop's credit, there is no other romance-only imprint or brand that's comparable to LoveLove. However, there are imprints, like Inklore, that are curating comics worldwide in the same place for a wide variety of readers.



Inklore

Next on the docket is the newest kid in town Inklore. The imprint was announced in late June 2023, but it won't officially launch until the spring of next year 2024. According to the Comics Beat article, Inklore is a joint venture between Penguin Random House and Del Rey UK. Formed from a merger in 2013, Penguin Random House is an American book publisher and the largest general-interest paperback publisher in the world. Del Rey UK is the young adult and adult science fiction and fantasy imprint of Penguin Random House UK, which publishes "the very best in commercial and crossover" Sci-Fi, fantasy, horror, and graphic novels. (Not to be confused with Del Rey Manga or Del Rey, California.) As a result, Inlore will be dedicated to publishing "the most popular, fan-driven tropes in visual storytelling, with a focus on digital-to-print licensed publishing in the romance, fantasy, science fiction, horror, and slice-of-life genres.” Similar to LoveLove, Inklore mixes comics from around the world and age groups, offering the same content to teens and adults alike.


Inklore logo - Black tear drop with a lilac speech bubble inside; INKLORE is spelled in all caps, san serif font

Like Tokyopop, Inklore is technically not a "shojo" imprint in name as it is catering to a wide range of people across genders. However, in dedicating itself to an online readership, Inklore will inevitably reach young, female readers en masse. Some of the biggest sites that Inklore will license from like WEBTOON, Tappytoons, and Tapas, have a high female readership that outpaces male readers.




So, Inklore is elevating feminine media similar to Tokyopop. However, unlike Tokyopop, Inklore promises to go beyond romance and delve into other genres. The imprint will offer "emotionally intelligent and indulgent" stories—whatever that means. The lofty language on the website and its social media blurbs sound and seem promising, but... it feels like deja vu to me.



Launch titles include My Love Story With Yamada-kun at Lv999 (a gamer rom-com manga series), Under the Oak Tree (a fantasy romance novel), The Heavens (an adult fantasy space opera original graphic novel series), Northern Lights (a YA fantasy graphic novel series), and Cherry Blossoms After Winter (a childhood-friends-to-lovers BL manhwa). (The very popular and award-winning Persephone x Hades story Lore Olympus is license #0 and is the only title available now.) Sign up for the newsletter, and check out Inklore's website here.


Fingers crossed that Inklore will license some emotionally charged josei stories. Speaking of josei...



Seven Seas Steamship

I saved the best or groan-inducing one for last. There's no in-between. Formed in 2004, Seven Seas Entertainment is "the #1 independently-owned manga publisher in the English-language market," and the catalog includes a wide variety of award-winning works and genres. Most pertinent to this discussion: smut. The company is known for publishing ecchi, fanservice, and smut works in print. To me, Seven Seas' Steamship feels like manna from heaven. Finally, a well-curated romance catalog designed specifically for me! (I'll save the gushing for a later date.)


Steamship website taken circa July 2023

Post-00s crash you could find sexy m/f manga for women mostly online legally via sites like Coolmic and Renta or in e-book from e-retailers like Amazon's Kindle store. Major publisher Kodansha USA published most of its m/f smut romance shojo and josei titles digitally. Examples include Boss Wife, Peach Heaven, Peach Mermaid, My Pink is Overflowing, and Our Bodies Entwining, Entwined. However, if you wanted to read your m/f smut physically, you were limited to the few offerings from Viz Shojo Beat and Seven Seas (pre-Steamship). Shojo Beat examples include Demon Love Spell, Midnight Secretary, Yakuza Lover, Butterflies Flowers, and Happy Marriage!?. Seven Seas had Fire in His Fingertips and Bite Maker: the King's Omega. You'd have to go back to 2005 with Dark Horse's attempt at sexy manga to find a company that attempted to court an older female audience with physical books via a dedicated imprint.


Dark Horse Harlequin Violet book ad says: "Harlequin Violet: Sexy and sophisticated romance for readers 16 and up!
Dark Horse Comics Harlequin Violet targeted readers 16+ with "sexy and sophisticated" romance stories

So, when Seven Seas' Steamship sailed into bookstores in May 2022, it wasn't offering anything new. The only thing new is how it approached these readers. It didn't mix in the smut with the chaste kisses and handholding, fairytale and school romance that shojo is oftentimes dismissed only of being, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, it didn't use such a dismissive tone to describe the curated selection of titles like the failure to launch marketing campaign "Manga After Hours" engineered by a pre-manga crash Tokyopop. No, Seven Seas came straight up with a cute brand and logo for Steamship, and the company used direct, no-bullshit language. Per the press release:


“We’ve long had our eye on this under-served audience...As shojo and josei readers grow older, many of them crave more risque romance to spice up their bookshelves. Romance novel fans in the West have a broad selection of options, so we’re bringing that same philosophy to the manga section: if ladies want it hot, look for the Steamship logo.”

Steamship's launch titles include Outbride: Beauty & the Beasts, I'll Never Be Your Crown Princess!, Game: Between the Suits, and Ladies on Top. Two fantasy romance series and two contemporary office romance series. All smut. As of this post, there are 12 manga (including license #0 Fire in His Fingertips) and 1 light novel. Only 1 LGBTQ+ romance thus far (I Want You To Make Me Beautiful!), but I'm sure that number will grow to include more judging by the yuri in Ghost Ship's coffers. With Steamship's launch, Seven Seas has doubled down on Ghost Ship being smut targeted at men. Seven Seas could have turned Ghost Ship into an imprint for adults much like Viz's Signature imprint but decided not to for the simple reason of helping readers find the content they want easily in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Like it (or not), Steamship is technically the only other shojo/josei manga imprint besides Shojo Beat, but Steamship, along with Shojo Beat, is one of many joseimuke manga imprints and brands that exist today.



repeat of post title card////Featured: Sirius: Twin Stars, Godchild/Cain Saga series, My Love Story with Yamada-kun at Lv999, On/Off, I Can't Refuse S, Banana Fish, and Natsume's Book of Friends
Featured: Sirius: Twin Stars, Godchild/Cain Saga series, My Love Story with Yamada-kun at Lv999, On or Off, I Can't Refuse S, Banana Fish, and Natsume's Book of Friends


Conclusion

Rather than picking through the entirety of a publisher's catalog, dedicated imprints are shortcuts to finding that specific thing you're looking for...at least online. When it comes to browsing in your favorite bookstore, imprints are only as strong as its branding, and when it comes to strong brand recognition and brands catering to a female audience, Viz's Shojo Beat is the Queen. Well, it's 2023, and Viz's Shojo Beat isn't the only shojo (targeting young and teen girls), josei (targeting adult women), or joseimuke (general female audience) manga imprint in town. By my count, there are four major imprints total. Besides Shojo Beat, there's Tokyopop's LoveLove, Penguin Random House x Del Rey UK's Inklore, and Seven Seas' Steamship.


Romance manga is a very popular genre, especially with a female audience. So, if you're looking for romance manga, all of these imprints will suit your needs. However, if you're craving a "one-stop shop" romance brand with m/f, same-sex, and lgbtq+ stories, then LoveLove will suit your needs. If you're looking for a mature-only romance brand, then Steamship should be your go-to. However, if you're looking for shojo besides romance or just shojo in general, then Shojo Beat is the obvious #1 choice followed by the up-and-coming Inklore. While Inlore and LoveLove aren't technically shojo/josei imprints by the publisher's own admission (in contrast to Shojo Beat and Steamship), these imprints will reach a largely female demographic by picking up popular online comics for physical distribution and/or placing m/f romance in the catalog. Shojo Beat and Steamship are technically the only shojo/josei imprints right now.



Steamship books on a white shelf; A blue Briarwick candle props up the books as a bookend; Featured manga: Outbride, I'll Never Be Your Crown Princess, The Villainess and the Demon Knight, Game: Between the Suits, Ladies on Top, and Fire in His Fingertips
(This candle smells good, lol #NotSponsored)


Will shojo/josei ever escape the romance-only allegations or the non-romance-manga-is-an-exception allegations? Sadly, no. The PR and marketing is just too strong. We have close to three decades of "shojo = romance" (and magical girls among other things) to turn back now. It will probably take a general shojo/josei imprint that focuses on anything but romance to break through the cycle, probably. Is there anything we can do about it? Besides offering up recs and gushing about our favorite "non-romance" shojo/josei manga to fans, probably not, but we can still try. Will we ever get more "non-romance" shojo and josei? Yes, we will, and yes we have. We've been getting them for a long time, and we're getting them right now. Like today. They're just not called or marketed as "shojo" or "josei." (More on that topic at 6.)


In the meantime, if you're interested in reading 99.9% authentic, pure, and uncut shojo and josei manga but want a shortcut, then these imprints will get you started. If you're looking for more shojo/josei-friendly imprints to pick through, I'll have a full list for you soon.


Happy reading! ✌️

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